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Sun, Jun 03, 2018

Flaws and All - 1st in series

As we come to our first reading in this new series, it may be easy to get caught up in the individual personalities in the story and miss some key details about the context. Here’s what we need to keep in mind going in…At the beginning of 1 Samuel, Israel exists only as a loose federation of tribes with powerful external threats looming. It is also a time of “spiritual desolation” writes Bruce Birch , with corruption and social upheaval happening from within as well. In the first verse we find that during this time the “the Word of the Lord” is rare and visions are uncommon. So what is about to transpire is not to be taken lightly either by the first hand participants or the people of the tribes of Israel. For God is about to speak, repeatedly, to Samuel, as he serves the Lord in the temple at Shiloh. God’s voice is about to break into this turmoil and call Samuel up to open a new door on a new day for his people.
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!”[a] and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 The LORD called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 Then the LORD said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God,[b] and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” 15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.” 19 As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.

Sermon: Doors

A few weeks ago Matt mentioned the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in his sermon. I was always fascinated by that movie (the original, not the Johnny Depp version). If you’ve ever seen the original, then you may remember that those winners of the golden tickets were in for far more than they bargained for when they arrived for their tour of the factory with the mysterious chocolatier. Once inside the building things immediately start to take a strange turn as Mr. Wonka herds the hapless crew down a black and white checkered hallway – do you remember this? The hallway appears to be shrinking as they walk along – the ceiling getting lower and the walls narrowing in until they are all smashed up against one another with no room to move. Only a tiny doorway is visible as a way out. Why can’t they go back where they started? They ask. But Wonka’s reply is that there simply isn’t any going backwards there is only going forward. The guests begin to panic…what happened to the hallway? How could they possibly fit through the miniscule doorway that seems no higher than their knees? Their anxiety mounts as Wonka edges through them bending over in front of the door holding a key that appears too big to fit the tiny lock.
Yet, the key works with ease, and once unlocked, Wonka pushes the door open creating an entrance suitably sized to accommodate everyone. As they pass through this miraculous door with bewilderment they find a whole new world awaiting them on the other side – one filled with strange and wonderful things they could never have imagined. Once it sinks in, they begin to fan out excitedly in all directions to indulge in the edible landscape around them, which is interesting enough…but let’s go back to that door for a minute.

Huddled together on the other side they all bemoaned the impossibility of passing through the doorway - - all but Wonka who merely opened it. So was the door actually too small and miraculously grew or was it their perception of the door that was too small to imagine walking through it? Perception goes a long way in either keeping us stranded with our fears and doubts or helping us open the door to new and amazing things.
Poet William Blake famously wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.” But we struggle against the idea that “anything is possible,” even with God we question possibilities, and balk at the notion that we could be standing on the threshold of the infinite at any given moment in our lives. Even when we hear God calling us to him, we don’t always catch on right away – our perception is such that we doubt not only the reality of God speaking directly to us, but we also doubt our importance – why would God call me? And then, if we do acknowledge our call, we still may ask, how does God expect me to fit through that particular door?
Perhaps few other places would seem more conducive to hearing God’s call than in the temple itself. Yet when young Samuel hears the Lord’s voice he runs to find Eli, his priestly mentor. “Here I am, for you called me,” he says, but Eli replies: “I did not call; lie down again.” This happens not once or twice but three times…finally Eli rightly perceives the situation and instructs Samuel to respond thusly: “if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Samuel follows Eli’s instructions and when the Lord calls once more he is ready to listen, but what Samuel hears is not a comforting word. There will be hard words to relay to Eli about his future and Samuel is reluctant to follow through. In the morning Samuel opens the doors to the house of the Lord - - quite literally, opening the doors, and yet it is also symbolic. For when Eli inquires about the Lord’s word to Samuel, he seems to know what is coming. He encourages Samuel to tell all of it and hide nothing from him, even if it is harsh news. It is Eli who helps Samuel to open those inner doors of faith and walks him through; Eli shows him that despite the difficulty of his call he, too, can bring the Word of God, he, too, can be a leader of the people, he, too, can walk through those seemingly small and impossibly narrow doors of faith because the Lord is with him and has appointed him a prophet.
But we can relate, to how it all began can’t we? Because even when the Lord is standing right in front of us, we may still perceive his call as unlikely and the door too small. In our New Testament account of Nathanael we may see ourselves in his response as well. Indeed, Nathanael’s perception of the doorway before him was that it was simultaneously firmly shut: “nothing good can come out of Nazareth” and also wide open – “you are the Son of God!” It is Jesus who will help Nathanael understand that his calling as a disciple will require him to reconcile the unlikely, even the impossible, with the new reality in Christ who changes our perception. Even when our sense of call may be crystal clear, we still need to marry our new understanding – our new perception - to action…to live what we know, to embody what we believe – to walk through the door that seems impossibly small and stand tall on the other side.
If we move through history, we have such examples. Martin Luther, whom we celebrated in conjunction with the Reformation anniversary last fall, blew open the doors of long-held perceptions that the Bible was meant to be read and interpreted only by a select few. He challenged the notion that the Word of God was so exclusive, and he lifted the veil on corrupt practices of the church that made a mockery of real grace and redemption. Luther made the decision to post his 95 theses directly on the doors of the church, doors that needed to be opened in new ways to transform the church from the inside. Many thought him foolish, others called him a traitor to the faith, but Luther perceived not only a new call on his life, but was willing to ensure that the door to reformation would be opened, and remain open for others to follow.
Another Martin - Martin Luther King, Jr. exemplifies a faithful disciple who saw a door that was not only shut, but barred, chained, and double-locked. A door that was purposely designed to keep some people out – but it was all perception - - perceptions about who we are in the eyes of man on the one side and perceptions about who we are as beloved created beings in the eyes of God on the other. Somehow, someone had to be willing to see that door between races opening as a not only a possibility, but a necessity – it became his life’s calling and he did not answer it alone – there were many others who took on the challenge in the name of peace and love and reconciliation, but he was at the front of that crowded huddle desperate to get out of a narrow hallway and he was willing to move forward and show others the way to follow…which was not “his way” but the way of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, whom he loved and proclaimed.
If we were to pick up Blake’s quote again, it continues with these words: “For man has closed himself up, till he sees things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” Are we content to only look through the chinks in the door and never attempt to open, much less walk through it? Are we agreeable to staying within this self-contained space of closed-mindedness in the face of the infinite that God offers? Or are we able to see with new eyes, that all things are possible in Christ?
Every call story, including our own is laced with moments of doubt and misperception. Of feeling ourselves to be crowded and overwhelmed by the Lord and seeing no way to go about accomplishing the tasks he has set before us. For some the call is nation-changing, life-altering, government toppling and trail blazing – these doors must appear miniscule indeed and yet those who answer these calls perceive the truth and power of God’s provision and find the way through. For others the call is perhaps on a less grand scale, yet no less important in God’s eyes. For all of us are called, and for any one of us the call may be to teach the Good News in Sunday school, head a committee, serve at a soup kitchen, or raise up our children in the faith…yet they require us to see that same door as being a possibility, as being open, and asks for our willingness to trust God enough to put our feet on that threshold and continue forward.
Sometimes we will be called, like Eli, to be the ones to demonstrate to others that the door can be opened. Other times we simply need to be the ones to walk through, a task often easier said than done. Yet we do not approach these doors alone, and we have the witness of men and women throughout history who have bravely and faithfully answered a call to do a new thing or go where others feared to tread; who have learned to see that all things are possible with God; No lock is too strong and no door is too small for a servant of the Lord who is called. We celebrate these great disciples like Samuel, Nathanael, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King, Jr. who opened new doors to reveal that God’s Kingdom was more than a dream – who continue to inspire others to move forward as well, to dismantle misperceptions and to bring the Good News of Christ as they walk in the ways of love, peace, and righteousness in this world. So if you find yourself standing in front of a seemingly impossible door, know that if it is God who is calling, you, too, can walk through. Amen.

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